A touching story of a little boy and the miracles surrounding him on opening day of the Little League baseball season. An inspirational story of what it means to live life to its fullest…
The Bottom of the 5th
A short story by Edison McDaniels
I had me a son once.
His name was Cooper and he was a special child, all a parent could want. The boy had dark mulatto skin, lighter than mine, and dense black hair that curled naturally into tight little twists close to his scalp. A smart kid, mature for his age, but funny too. And well-liked, with a natural gift for getting on with others. Like our neighbor Sam for instance, a old blind man. Cooper used to take the Sunday paper over to ‘im. He and Robbins—that’s my wife, Robbins with an ‘s’—would get home from church around 11:30 I guess. Cooper would grab a quick sandwich, then head over to Sam’s place and read to him for a couple of hours. I asked him once if there wasn’t something else he’d rather be doing with his Sunday afternoons.
“Like what?” he asked, like the thought had never occurred to him.
“I don’t know. Like playing ball or going to a movie maybe.”
He gave me a quizzical look. “Why would I wanna do that? Sam’s got more stories than any old movie and I can play ball anytime.”
I remember that conversation because it was the only time I ever heard Cooper put anything before baseball. He loved the game, was born to it. Spent hours playing it too. The boy couldn’t wait to get home in the afternoons to throw the ball around, even if it was just against the side of the garage. He wore a hole in the stucco there. Twice.
He was a good kid, the best as he once said to me. Truth is, the boy really only had one vice, and even that wasn’t so bad. Not in hindsight anyway. He was a thumbsucker. Did it without even thinking about it I’m sure.
Yeah, he was a good kid.
And then he was gone.
If you’ll sit a spell on the bleacher here alongside me, I’ll tell you about it. Not ‘cause he’s my son either, but because it’s worth hearing. First though, I have to tell you about opening day, about how he quit sucking his thumb.
And about the bottom of the fifth.
Cooper turned nine years old that Saturday, opening day. We arrived at the field a bit early, probably on account of him being so excited. Baseball did that to him. The day itself was perfect, like it was made for baseball. The sky was a cloudless deep blue—smog was still a thing of the future back then. Just a bare hint of breeze in the air, enough to carry the ball toward the fences I guess. What you’d call a hitter’s wind.
Roscoe Field the place was called. Built tight against one of those perpetually brown Southern California hillsides, so close the right field was thirty feet shorter than left. To fix that, they put a twenty foot high wall in right field where it dug into the mountain. There aren’t many ten year kids what can hit a ball both that far and that high for a homerun, but I saw it once—a feat I’ll describe for you shortly.
The outfield grass that spring day was the greenest I ever remember seeing it. The air was redolent of a just cut lawn, like honeydew and lilac it was. I can’t never smell that now that I don’t go back to that day. The snack bar, just a shack really, had its usual worn coat of paint. Fluorescent yellow, god knows why. The players sat on telephone poles laid in the dirt along first and third. Not fancy, but it worked. The backstop was a patched mess of rusty chicken wire and every time a ball hit it, those of us in the bleachers flinched at the possibility it wouldn’t hold. It always did though, except once. I’ll get to that too, presently.
There was the usual opening day carnival atmosphere, something I always liked but Cooper could have done without I suppose: balloons and firecrackers, a pony ride, the usual fire truck for the baby kids to climb on. Even a few carnival-style games and a kiddy slide. The teams joined up in the outfield and was introduced, followed by a few short but still too long speeches. A recorded version of the star spangled banner hissed over the loudspeakers and the Junior ROTC paraded the American flag across the infield.
When I saw him not long after the ceremony, it was obvious Cooper was bored, though he never woulda said so.
“When do the games start?” he asked.
“Cooper, you know how opening day is. Won’t be long now.”
“I just wanna get playing, to heck with all this other stuff. That’s for kids.”
Watching him standing there with his thumb in his mouth, I couldn’t help but chuckle at that. “And what do you suppose you are, champ?”
“A ball player, dad. I’m a ball player is all.” He said this with such conviction he must have thought it obvious to all.
“A ball player? Okay, sure. Tell me something though, Mr. ball player.” I hesitated a moment, perhaps afraid to burst his bubble. “You plan to suck your thumb out there?” I pointed through the chicken wire, out toward the pitcher’s mound.
“Naw, that’s not something ball players do,” he said, realizing he was doing it then. He took his thumb out and rubbed the slimy digit on his pants. As he did so, I saw it was wrinkled and pristinely clean compared to his other fingers. When he smiled up at me, his teeth bucked out expensively and I could imagine them costing me a fortune some day. He smiled and jogged off toward the carnival games despite himself.
When I caught up with him again a half hour later, his thumb was back in his mouth.
I remember that Saturday as if it was yesterday: the luxuriant green of the grass; the chirping of birds in the nearby trees; and the giggling of a couple of little girls sitting behind me in the stands. There was a pair of outside handball courts on the other side of the park, and I can even remember the sound of a rubber ball splotching against the cement walls there over and over again. In the quiet morning air, that sound seemed to echo forever. I also remember wishing Robbins could be there, but she had volunteered to help out at a pancake breakfast at our church that morning. Robbins was a nurse, and I later found out she saved a life that day, doing CPR when one of the older parishioners collapsed. Turned out she was the only one there what knew how to do it. She saved that man, I mean really saved him. Edelman was his name and he became the poster person for CPR across the Southwest after that. Saving his life probably saved countless others. Considering everything else that happened that day, that thought always comforts me.
Standing out on that field, playing third base as usual, I gotta say Cooper looked like a baseball player. That may sound like a father’s pride talking, but it really ain’t. Back in those days, every kid got a complete uniform: hat, shirt, pants, stirrup socks. He had his pants fixed just so, with the elastic band of the cuffs turned in just below his knees. He wore white socks with blue stirrups layered over them. There was even a batting glove sticking out one of his back pockets. He was very particular about his cap and had shaped and curved the bill of it the way ball players will do. He wore it well up on his forehead, never down over his eyes. His team sported light gray jerseys that buttoned up the front, the word ‘Dodgers’ embroidered diagonally in the classic script of the big league team. Cooper wore number three, same as Willie Davis, who played center field for LA. The shirt had blue piping that seemed somehow to complete the illusion of greatness each kid longed for.
I can remember that game as if it was played this morning, not twenty-six years ago.
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